While the fate of Dalvin Cook is set to be played out in a Tallahassee courtroom, fellow running back Mario Pender is ready to proceed no matter the outcome.
Pender, a red-shirt junior, returned to the playing field last season after a two-year absence and worked his way to second team before being derailed by an ankle injury.
He entered the offseason as Cook’s backup, until the expected starter was indefinitely suspended after being charged with misdemeanor battery for allegedly striking a woman while outside of a bar.
In an instant, Pender was elevated into a more prominent role, at least to outsiders.
But in Pender’s mind, nothing changed.
“I really didn’t have a different mindset,” Pender said. “I had the mindset of coming in and working and competing and fighting for the starting job regardless.”
Little is known about the 5-10, 196-pound Pender, who was ranked as the fourth-best running back in the country coming out of Cape Coral-Island Coast High.
After red-shirting in 2012, he was ruled academically ineligible in 2013. He then received his first start at Syracuse last season and sustained an ankle injury that kept him out of the next three games and limited him to seven carries the rest of the season.
“If Pender doesn’t turn his ankle at Syracuse, you may not have seen Dalvin,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Pender was playing extremely well.”
Pender is preparing as if he will start in two weeks against Texas State. Of course, all that could change if the trial that is scheduled for Monday goes Cook’s way. Either way, Pender will have a chance to make his mark for the first time since arriving three years ago.
“There’s been a heightened sense of focus and work ethic the entire summer,” running back coach Jay Graham said.
Pender still is being pushed. Freshman Jacques Patrick arrived in January as a five-star recruit and with a powerful (6-2, 235) frame. Patrick reminds many of former FSU tailback Karlos Williams, but with more of a knack for the position since Williams came to FSU as a defensive back.
“He kind of opened my eyes, punishing the linebackers each day in practice,” Pender said. “I gained respect for him once I actually saw him in person.”
Graham likes the combination of speed and power he gets with Pender and Patrick. Possibly throw Cook in the mix and the Seminoles backfield could be three deep once again.
But that is a big if, not only with Cook’s status in limbo, but Pender not having been on the field for a full season. After two years without playing in a game, he started last season second on the depth chart and took his first career carry 11 yards for a touchdown against Oklahoma State.
Then came the injuries. Pender sustained a concussion against Clemson and missed the next game.
He then had a career-best 70 yards against Wake Forest and was rewarded at Syracuse, but limped off the field in the second quarter after touching the ball 11 times (eight rushes, three catches) and scoring twice.
“I felt like I was in a zone,” he said.
Pender, who has been limited at practice this week because of an injured quadriceps, said the injuries have been “very frustrating,” but has learned to deal with them “once you get older.”
As for his relationship with Cook, Pender said he continues to “check up” on the sophomore.
“We talk pretty much every now and then,” Pender said. “I check on him to make sure he’s doing good. We check on each other as a human being outside of football.
“We’re behind Dalvin 100 percent. That’s just like my brother.”